Justine Tyerman

International Travel

The slow coach

The slow coach
Wildflowers against the spectacular backdrop of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Photo © Jungfrau Region

Justine Tyerman can’t resist a hiking trip to Switzerland, so she develops a convenient case of myopia.

Warning bells (the kind that hang around the necks of Swiss cows) began clanging inside my head when Birgit invited me on a hiking expedition in the Bernese Alps. Having met a few Swiss people and witnessed their superior hiking prowess, I should have known better than to believe that she was ‘unfit having not hiked for 14 years’. 

But yearning to revisit the alps and walk again amid majestic mountain kings, I conveniently snipped the donger out of the bell and lulled myself into believing I could ‘foot it’ with Swiss tour leader Birgit. After all, it was only three days and I would just be carrying a light day pack. Eurotrek was taking care of luggage transfers, transport and accommodation. All quite manageable, I decided in my blinkered, myopic state . . . so off I went to Switzerland. 

Our hiking group met up in Meiringen, a tranquil little resort town in the Hasli Valley known as ‘a nursery of first class alpine guides’. There’s an impressive bronze statue there depicting the ‘King of the Alpine Guides’ Melchior Anderegg with English mountaineer Sir Leslie Stephen. The jagged teeth of the Engelhörner Range, described as a climbers’ paradise, provide a stunning backdrop to the statue.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular visitor to Meiringen. His famous fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes spent his last night at the hotel where we stayed – the Park Hotel du Sauvage - before his apparently fatal encounter in 1891 with arch foe Professor Moriarty at nearby Reichenbach Falls. Holmes’ fans refused to accept this death so Doyle was forced to resurrect him three years later.

I visited Meiringen’s fascinating Sherlock Holmes museum which tells all about the life of the master detective and his sidekick Dr John Watson. You can travel by funicular to the Reichenbach Falls where Holmes and Moriarty struggled and supposedly fell to their deaths. The falls flow into the glacier-fed Aare River which has carved a deep gash into limestone rock over millions of years. A platform leads through the narrow gorge suspended from a perpendicular rock face just above the icy, green river.

Over dinner that evening, we studied the detailed information and maps provided by Eurotrek. Day one of the Bear Trek from Meiringen to Grindelwald covered 22.9km, ascending 1530m and descending 1095m, a total hiking time of eight hours, 30 minutes - a formidable start to our expedition.

Eurotrek included suggestions for shortening the hike by a couple of hours and shaving off a few hundred vertical metres by taking a Post Auto bus to the Hotel Rosenlaui.

Birgit endorsed the idea and I wholeheartedly agreed, trying not to sound too enthusiastic.

Disembarking at the graceful Hotel Rosenlaui overlooking the Aare River, we were confronted with spectacular peaks rising abruptly above a dark green tree-line splodged with fiery autumn foliage.

We set off and all went well . . . for the first six minutes. And then the naturally-athletic Birgit hit her stride. Even 14 years in Australia could not dilute her Swissness. Mountains are to Swiss what rugby is to Kiwis. It’s part of their psyche, their DNA. They can no more walk slowly uphill than a Kiwi can cheer for the Aussies! 

The teller-of-tall-tales strode ahead at a steady pace, the same speed up as on the flat. 

One foot after the other

Meanwhile, the slow coach brought up the rear, grateful for frequent photo stops which allowed me to catch my breath and catch up. I remembered the mantra of my hiking mate on our very first tramp many years ago. One foot after the other and you’ll get there . . . eventually. 

The beauty of the surroundings kept my spirits buoyed. The trail led us through forests of tall conifers, across lush green meadows sprinkled with wild flowers grazed by friendly, bell-wearing cows, and alongside meandering streams.

We climbed to a beautiful alpine plateau where we walked in awed silence in the shadow of the magnificent, mystical Wetterhorn whose sheer grey rock face wept glacier tears.

There were no other hikers on this relatively remote part of the Bear Trek . . . and the bears that once roamed these high alpine pathways had long since disappeared. The only sounds were the ding-dong of cow bells and the conversational gurgling of mountain streams.

We came across barns and chalets with self-service fridges stocked with local cheeses. Some were beautifully decorated with flowers and pin-up photos of award-winning dairy cows whose rich milk made the products therein.

Among Switzerland’s multifarious delights are her mountain restaurants found in the most unlikely places. The Berghotel, located at the summit of the Grosse Scheidegg Pass, 1962m, is one such establishment. The hotel served hearty fare for hungry hikers - barley soup with spicy sausages and crispy bread followed by mouth-watering desserts.

On the long downward track to Grindelwald, the Eiger’s forbidding North Face loomed into view, along with the breath-taking Mönsch and Jungfrau.

The lovely Hotel Kirchbühl, our resting place for the night, was a welcome sight at the end of a long day’s hiking. And a treat was in store for us on the terrace. Birgit introduced us to ‘Hugo’ which became our favourite cocktail on the trek – made with prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint and lime juice, it was seriously refreshing. There was magic in the air that evening as sunset cast surreal shafts of light on the mountains, and long shadows over the picturesque village of Grindelwald.

Encircled by a necklace of mountains, Grindelwald emerged as a popular holiday resort in the late 18th century. The 3967m Eiger became a magnet for mountaineers, the first ascent taking place in 1858. However, the 1800m sheer rock and ice Nord Wand (North Face) was not conquered until 1938. The Eiger has since claimed 64 lives.

In 1912, a railway reached the Jungfrau and today still holds the distinction of being Europe’s highest train station at 3454m. The Sphinx Terrace at the ‘Top of Europe’ sits at 3571m.

With outstanding skiing and hiking trails, Grindelwald is a popular year-round destination. A few years ago, I hiked to Lake Bachalp. The lake’s stunning reflections of the mountains make it one of the region’s most exquisite walks.

After a delicious dinner of local venison, fresh vegetables, salads and apple fritters, sleep came easily to the slow coach, thanks to a comfy bed, fluffy duvet and soft pillow. I was so thankful I’d survived day one . . . but day two looked even more daunting.

To be continued...

Factbox:

  • The Bear Trek is part of the Via Alpina, a network of five international trails, covering 5000km through eight countries. Established in the year 2000, the Via Alpina has 342 stages on clearly-marked paths from zero to 3000m above sea level. In Switzerland, mountain restaurants and hotels provide meals and accommodation along the way. Eurotrek organised our accommodation and luggage transfers so we just carried a light day pack.
Justine Tyerman was a guest of Switzerland Tourism, travelled courtesy of Swiss Travel Pass and hiked in the Jungfrau Region with Eurotrek.